The Right Stuff

Matching Your Gear to the Mountain

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

What's ideal for multiple days on technical, glaciated terrain (Rainier) might be overkill on a single-day push up a series of snowfields (Adams and St. Helens). Evaluate your long-term goals before you buy: If you plan to climb a mountain like Rainier only once or twice in your life, think about renting the gear you need. But if skiing big mountains like Adams is fast becoming a passion, a smart purchase now will save you money over time. Here's what worked best for each. —M.P.

A: Mount Rainer

Ice Axes
Save weight somewhere else. In an emergency, your ax needs to have sufficient length and girth so you can plunge the shaft into the snow, slap a carabiner through the eyelet on the adze, and trust that it'll hold the guy on your rope team who's dangling in that crevasse. The REI Mountain 2 Ice Axe ($70; we photographed a ten-year-old model) doesn't have an ergonomic grip or any fancy titanium machine work you don't need. Buy it long enough (6 sizes, 65 to 90 centimeters) so you can use it like a miniature walking stick on steep terrain.

Climbing helmets are basically hard hats: An X of webbing suspends a plastic shell two inches above your head, but instead of protecting the top of your skull from dropped hammers, it shields you from falling rock and ice. You can spend more, but the Petzl Ecrin Roc ($74) will withstand multiple hits and works extremely well with Petzl's popular headlamps. Problem is, climbing helmets don't insulate, so you'll need a skullcap underneath.


To haul 50 pounds of gear, food, and water up 5,000 feet, you'll need a pack with between 5,000 and 6,000 cubic inches of volume—any more and you'll be tempted to carry too much; any less, not enough. Many of us tried new packs on Rainier, but we weren't thrilled with any of them. The lesson? Find a pack that fits, buy it, and never let it go. Those of us who used trusted old packs fared best. For a starting point, check out L.L. Bean's affordable but top-quality Guide Series Expedition Pack ($265). It's loaded with ski-mountaineering-friendly features, expands to 5,425 ci, and compresses beautifully for summit attempts.

B: Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens

Ice Axes
If your ax is big and heavy, you won't take it skiing with you; it's that simple. But with the 9.5-ounce Grivel Nepal Light ($98; three sizes, 53 to 66 centimeters) on your pack, you can forget about it until you need it. And need it you will. Headwalls can be steeper up close than they look from below. Daggering in with the pick of your ax can make short work of the final push. Or enable you to self-arrest if you fall trying.

Why not use your climbing helmet as your ski helmet? Because simple climbing helmets protect the top of your head from multiple light impacts, but when you crash on skis you're more likely to smack the front, side, or back of your head, once—and hard. Ski lids, like the Boeri Shorty ($120), therefore, are one-hit wonders like bike helmets. Expanded polystyrene beneath a thin plastic shell absorbs the impact by shattering. And polystyrene is an excellent insulator, keeping you warm for the descent. Sure would be nice, though, if one helmet worked for both types of activities and impacts.

Down jacket, goggles, water, shovel, avalanche probe, harness, rope, sub sandwich. That's the bulk of what you cram into a ski pack for a single-day push. If you can skin the entire way up, go minimalist with a two-pound pack. But if you're forced to carry your skis on a long approach, consider the increased stability of the 3-pound, 8-ounce Osprey Eclipse 42 ($190). With a full U-shaped zipper around the back panel and a lightning-fast ski- or board-retention system, the 2,600-cubic-inch Eclipse incorporates the best features of the two earlier-edition Osprey packs we tested last June. That, with Osprey's trademark foam-stiffened sidewalls that fold up for smaller loads (and also enable the pack to mold to the contours of your back), makes it our top choice.

Slip Not: Snow-Protection Essentials

Mountaineering is a sport that demands a large array of safety hardware that you hope you never have to use. Why? Chances are good that if you're truly testing your pickets, flukes, pulleys, or even just your ropes, you're a pick's width away from becoming a lifeless Gore-Tex burrito at the bottom of an icy tomb. Here's what you need, just in case. (1) Aluminum snow pickets come in two- or three-foot lengths and are extremely useful in anchoring your ropes, and you, to the mountain. Bang 'em into hard snow vertically or place them like a plow horizontally, and it'll take a truck to pull them free. (2) Flukes work like boat anchors, burrowing ever deeper under load. When placed correctly (angled back, cables taut), they work well in loose, powdery snow—even three guys reefing on a well-placed fluke couldn't make it pop. (3) Use a screw when the surface is too icy and steep for flukes or pickets, but be sure to chop through the surface crud to get to the solid ice below. (4) Use a locking carabiner to connect your harness to the rope and the rope to belay anchors. (5) Wire gates are less prone than locking 'biners to freezing shut; use them for clipping runners to pickets, flukes, and screws. (6) Although a Münter hitch can replace a belay device if you know how to tie one, guides will tell you an ATC or Jaws belay device is indispensable on the glacier. Using such friction plates to provide belays over crevasses or up short, steep sections is often too time-consuming when other methods will suffice, but the device is worth its weight during rescues. Use it to rappel into a crevasse to help a fallen victim, or set it next to a pulley to help feed rope smoothly when hauling the victim out. (7) Fifty meters of 9 millimeter rope is sufficient for one rope team. Make sure you use a "dry" rope, one that has been treated with a polyurethane coating to repel water. Reason: A wet rope is heavier and about half as strong as a dry one. —T.N.

Gear Up

Climbing-skin manufacturers tend to make bold claims about how much better their skins glide and grip than those of their competitors. Don't believe them. Natural mohair, nylon mohair, blends of the two—hell, mohair pulled from the ass of virgin snow monkeys, it doesn't seem to matter; they all glide reasonably smoothly and grip exceedingly well. Don't, however, try to save a few dollars and buy plastic skins. They won't glide, won't grip on ice, and the plastic straps that hold them on the ski break in less than a season. We like these Low-Fat Climbing Skins from Backcountry Access ($80 to $120 depending on width) because they're lightweight and can be trimmed for an exact fit on fat skis. Ascension and Life-Link also make top-notch products. —M.P.

To climb the slopes you want to ski, you'll need 12-point, semirigid crampons—two toothy plates connected by an adjustable metal bar. The flex between the plates allows for a better fit and helps prevent snow from balling up underneath (which will cork the points and cause you to slip). Although some crampons attach with cinch straps, for AT or dedicated mountaineering boots, we recommend the Black Diamond Sabretooths ($135). The Sabretooths are step-in crampons with stainless-steel heel and toe bails, which make them a breeze to put on with popsicle fingers at midnight. Other step-in and strap models are available from Charlet Moser and Grivel —T.N.

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